Happy release day!! Tom Epperson’s powerful new political thriller Roberto to the Dark Tower Came is now on sale! To celebrate, we hope you enjoy this excerpt from the novel.
Tom Epperson is a native of Malvern, Arkansas. He received a B.A. in English from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and an M.A. in English from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, then headed west with his boyhood friend Billy Bob Thornton to pursue a career in show business. Epperson’s co-written the scripts for One False Move, A Family Thing, The Gift, A Gun, a Car, a Blonde, and Jayne Mansfield’s Car. His book The Kind One was nominated in 2009 for both the Edgar Award and the Barry Award for Best First Novel. His second novel, Sailor, was published in 2012. He lives in Los Angeleswith his wife, Stefani, three pampered cats, and a frisky dog.
The sky is really pouring by the time he reaches The Hour’s offices. Dark clouds are curling over the tops of the mountains as if the mountains were a dam barely holding back some vast, unimaginably powerful storm. The gutters gush with filthy water. He’s about to turn into the parking lot under the building, but he has to wait for a guy who looks like he’s out of a zombie movie to walk by. His long stringy hair is dripping with rain and he’s talking to himself and slapping his face. Probably he’s high on basuco.
Roberto opens his trunk so a security guard can poke around in it while another security guard circles his car with an aging, plodding, bomb-sniffing dog. Nobody, not even the publisher or editor, is allowed to enter uninspected since it’s reasoned that a bomb could have been planted in their car without their knowledge, or their family could have been taken hostage and will all be killed unless they bring a bomb into the building. This is not mere paranoia. Aside from the fact this is a crazy country where anything can happen, five years ago a car bomb ripped the building wide-open, killing three and injuring eighteen.
He missed the explosion by about a minute. He had been at his desk when he got a phone call. He was working on a story about a massacre in a town called Contamana, where the killers had worn masks and their identities were unclear. The caller claimed to have inside knowledge of the massacre, and was willing to meet with him and tell him what he knew in one hour. He wouldn’t give his name and Roberto was suspicious of him, but he finally agreed to meet in a public place where his murder was unlikely: at the statue of Simón Bolívar, in Bolívar Park. He wasn’t surprised when the guy was a no-show. He hung out with the Liberator and hundreds of pigeons for half an hour, and then headed back to the office. He was a few blocks away when he heard the boom and saw the smoke.
He knew immediately it was his newspaper. When he got there he saw coworkers stumbling out of the building and he will never forget how white and red they were: covered with dust and streaked with blood. He saw a woman’s bare leg sticking out of the rubble, a stylish black high heel still on the foot. He ran over and started clawing away the bricks and plaster but discovered there was no woman attached to the leg. His grandmother suggested that it was divine intervention that saved him from the blast, that perhaps the caller wasn’t a person at all but a spirit, his guardian angel. He told her he didn’t believe in guardian angels and she said that was okay, angels didn’t hold it against you when you didn’t believe in them.
He takes the elevator up to the fifth floor and enters the newsroom. It’s a huge space that used to be filled with people and energy but now seems more like a warehouse where row on row of empty desks are stored. The Hour is an elderly paper in very poor health kept alive only by infusions of money from its founders and owners, the Langenberg family. He sits down at his desk and opens his computer. An email from his stepmother has just come in. Roberto, your father and I are having a few people over for dinner on Saturday. Please come. It would make your father so happy. We never see you anymore. Sometimes I think you don’t even like me. Clara. He emails back his disturbingly attractive stepmother that he will be there, then Gloria Varela, who seems incapable of doing anything other than dramatically, strides dramatically past his desk.
“Good morning, Roberto!” she says, not looking at him, with a breezy wave of her hand. She is tall and wears a long skirt, knee-high leather boots, and a black cape blotched with rain. Her most striking feature would be her hair, which is long, wild, and a blaze of red, except for the fact she has a piratical black patch covering her left eye. Which was put out by a bomb. Not the one five years ago but one twenty-two years ago that was meant just for her.
“Gloria,” he says, “can I ask you something?”
She stops, looks back at him, and smiles. “Of course.”
But he doesn’t ask anything, doesn’t say anything, he just sits there with his mouth shut. Seeing he’s at a loss, she walks back. She sits down on the edge of his desk and crosses her boots (she always wears boots; it’s rumored she has an entire closet filled with nothing but boots). She takes cigarettes out of her purse. You aren’t supposed to smoke in the newsroom, but Gloria is not the type of person to whom the rules apply.
“How do you do it?” he finally says.
She flicks her lighter into flame. “Do what, darling?”
“Be a journalist in this fucking country. For so many years.”
“That’s not nice, Roberto, you’re making me feel so old.”
She blows a cloud of smoke over his head. “Okay, here’s my secret. Have them make some stupid movie about you so you’ll be too famous to kill!”
When Gloria was just starting out as a journalist, she made a fateful trip to the southern jungles. It was to an area controlled by the Popular Revolutionary Movement, a Marxist guerrilla group that had been battling the government for decades. She was seeking an interview with one of the PRM leaders, Luis Valesquez, who had earned the nickname Commander Romeo because of his dashing good looks that set the hearts of even right-wing women aflutter. A go-between put Gloria in contact with the guerrillas, and she was conducted to their headquarters. She had been led to believe that Valesquez was eager to be interviewed, but the PRM prided itself on being tricky and devious, and Gloria was promptly taken prisoner and held for ransom. After a little over a year, her release was negotiated, and it created a sensation all over the country when the movie-star-gorgeous redheaded reporter emerged from the jungle with her belly big with child. She was mum about the father, but promised to write a book in which she’d reveal everything.
Gloria wanted to call the book One Year, One Month, Eight Days: My Life as a Captive of the PRM. Instead, her publisher called it Commander Romeo and Me. In it she told of being chained for months like some hapless animal to a tree in the jungle, and of occasional visits from Valesquez during which a mutual respect and curiosity began to develop, until finally whole nights would pass with him and her talking and talking about the war, their pasts, their fears and dreams and their inmost selves as the equatorial stars blazed down through the gaps in the rain forest canopy, and then came the night when Commander Romeo unlocked the chain. “I felt a swelling sense of relief and joy as I realized I was free,” wrote Gloria. “But neither my body nor my soul remained at liberty for long, for they both became captives in Luis’s strong arms.”
Reaction to the book was passionate and divided, with many readers enthralled by Gloria’s soaringly romantic adventure, and others seeing her as at best a dupe of the Communists, if not their outright ally, who had concocted the story of her kidnapping as a way to get money for the PRM. A few weeks after the book came out, Gloria was walking up the stairs to her apartment with her and Valesquez’s year-and-a-half-old child in her arms when a bomb went off. She lost consciousness briefly, then opened her remaining eye and saw her son Martín lying at the bottom of the stairs—still alive, waving his arms around, but with a jagged piece of wood sticking out of his head. Two days later, in a hospital recovering from her injuries, she saw on TV a photograph of grinning government soldiers posing with the bloody corpse of Luis Valesquez as if he were a big-game trophy. Instantly the story started that Commander Romeo had been killed while on a desperate journey to the capital city to see Gloria and their injured son, but the truth was more prosaic: he’d cut his foot while swimming in a river, the cut had become infected, and he was on his way to see a doctor when he and some of his men had blundered into a government ambush. The movie rights to the book were acquired by a famous Spanish director who cast two Spanish movie stars in the lead roles. Commander Romeo and Me (with of course the tear-jerking Romeo-trying-to-reunite-with-Juliet ending) became a worldwide success, and Gloria was on hand in Hollywood when it was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
“But they kill famous people,” Roberto says to Gloria. “Look at Ricky Cortés.”
“Yes, poor Ricky,” Gloria says. “But he wasn’t one tenth as famous as me.” The hand holding her cigarette is delicately cocked at the wrist, and her eye is gazing thoughtfully at nothing. “The truth is, I’m certain I would have been killed. If I hadn’t left.”
She moved to Paris after the movie came out. She became known for her eye patch and her flamboyant ways. She had a famous fling with the French president. She conducted a series of notorious interviews with world political leaders whom she somehow charmed into putting up with her often rude and outrageous questions. She returned to her own country after eleven years.
“Why did you come back when you did?” he asks her. “Why did you think it was safe?”
“Well, one never feels completely safe, you know, but—time passes, people get older, some of your enemies die, others begin to forget or just lose interest. And it helps that I’m not the writer I used to be.”
“Oh, that’s not true,” he murmurs, but he knows that it is. She’s no longer the fiery radical figure of her youth. For the last several years she’s been writing a gossipy political column that seldom takes any discernible side. She studies the glowing tip of her cigarette as if it’s some odd phenomenon she’s never noticed before.
“It changes you,” she says. “Being blown up along with your baby. How could it not?”
He feels sad for her. For her and Martín. He is a permanent patient in a Catholic hospital called the Home for the Relief of Suffering. Physically a young man but still trapped mentally in the time he was being carried up that staircase.
Now Gloria smiles. “So what’s with all the questions, my handsome one?” She reaches over and ruffles Roberto’s hair. Her demeanor toward him has always been a mixture of the motherly and flirty. “What’s up with you?”
“I’m thinking about leaving,” he says.
“Yes. I think maybe it’s becoming too dangerous for me here.”
“And where would you go?”
“Saint Lucia, at least for now. My girlfriend and her parents are there.”
“And what would you do in Saint Lucia?”
“The same as here. Only I wouldn’t be looking over my shoulder every three seconds.”
Gloria seems unsurprised by any of this. She’s quiet for a moment, looking at him speculatively—and then says, “I would miss you, Roberto. But maybe it isn’t such a bad idea that you go. I’m a little surprised they haven’t killed you already.”